Pickpockets! Purse-snatchers! Vagabonds abound! The travel sites I read before my trip painted a lurid European landscape plagued by criminal masterminds and Dickensian street urchins. Each story read was another pearl clutched, and they left me determined to cling to my bag as though it were a life vest. Then I found accounts of robberies gone wrong, where the thief would slash the victim’s arm or back in an attempt to cut the straps off a backpack. Though troublesome, those stories added perspective. Fortunately, I never crossed paths with a knife-wielding maniac, and I was prepared for the con artists I encountered.
It’s always best to be proactive rather than reactive, and in this instance a bit of research protected me from being scammed. The U.S. Department of State website is a great place to start before embarking on an international journey. A useful resource full of valuable travel advice, the site offers information on visa and vaccination requirements, local laws, transportation, embassies, and more. They’ve added a Safety and Security segment for each country, detailing the most prevalent methods of crime in each region.
Did you drop this?
Typically when someone asks you if you’ve dropped something, it’s because they’re trying to be a good Samaritan. Sometimes they’re simply trying to swindle you. As I sat on the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, gazing out over the Seine, I noticed a woman approaching me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her bend down and pretend to pick up an imaginary object a few inches above the surface of the bridge.
“Excuse me,” she began, in faltering English, “did you drop this?” She extended her hand slowly towards me to reveal a gold ring. Despite her young face, the slight hunch of her shoulders rendered her witchlike, and I recoiled from the ring as though it were a poisoned apple. Recognizing the scam, I told her no as firmly as possible. As I suspected, she continued by telling me that the ring must be at least 14 karat gold, and that she wouldn’t mind selling it to me for a bargain. The ring most likely came from a 25¢ vending machine, or it was stolen. Either way, I didn’t go to Paris to buy a suspect ring on a bridge. I repeated the word no, hoping she would think it was the only English I knew, and soon enough she gave up.
Beggars can be choosers
I was advised not to engage with anyone in Florence who asked for money. Despite the warning that these interactions could be aggressive, I was not prepared for the level of persistence I ultimately faced. As I mentioned in the Instagram post above, a woman chased me down the street, miming a curved belly with her hands, while screaming, “Bambino, bambino, bambino!” She was relentless in her anguish, and I began to notice people narrowing their eyes at me, wondering if I had done something to her baby. I darted into a camera shop to ditch her, and watched as she glared at me through the window. Perhaps she was pregnant and in desperate need, but I’m more inclined to believe she saw me as an easy mark. She didn’t turn to anyone else for help. After a moment, she slipped back into the crowd and disappeared.
Sign this petition!
Do you truly believe you’re going to enact social change by signing a piece of paper in a foreign city? If a random person standing outside a tourist landmark thrusts a clipboard into your hands, it’s not a petition. It’s a scam. I sidestepped a group of clipboard-wavers outside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Later that day, I found out that a person on my tour decided to stop for them, and he wound up losing an AMEX Prepaid Card. After he signed the paper, the alleged petitioners informed him that he’d signed a legal document, agreeing to pay them €100. They threatened legal repercussions if he didn’t produce cash immediately. Attempting to deescalate the situation, he opened his wallet and showed them that he only had €10. In the ensuing confusion, they managed to slip the $500 AUD card from his wallet.
Much like the petition scam, this one is a bit of a bait and switch. Disarmed by the unexpected token of friendship, most people will not protest when a kind stranger offers a flimsy gift bracelet. In most cases, you generally are not even given a chance to decline. Once the braided strings are secured on your wrist, the deceiver will demand compensation for their wares. I met a Senegalese street vendor while I was sitting alone on a bench in Florence. Having abandoned the beggar lady earlier, I felt guilty for not being charitable. Otherwise, I probably would have feigned ignorance when he came up to ask me how my night was going. We spoke about his home country, and at the end of the conversation he pulled a rainbow friendship bracelet out of his basket of goods as he grabbed my wrist. Before he could tie a knot, I let him know that I didn’t have any cash on me, but he told me it was a gift. He said he enjoyed the conversation, and that not many people stopped to talk to him.
Obviously, not all street vendors are alike. I was initially wary of the man in Florence because I’d seen belligerent street vendors in Paris and Pisa. Tourist locations are crawling with people peddling water bottles, lit up balls that go splat against the concrete, whistling toys, and other general knickknacks. One man in particular circled me like a hawk beneath the Eiffel Tower, as I watched the light show, constantly pushing his products on me. I think he assumed that I would eventually concede if only to get him to leave me alone, but I really don’t know what I would do with a glowing rubber ball. If you visit the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, la Sagrada Familia, or any tourist landmark of that ilk, prepare to chat with street vendors. Frequently.
I won’t go so far as to say that you can’t trust anybody, but you should be cautious when you travel. Another person on my tour lost all her money and her driver’s license when we crossed Ponte Vecchio in Florence. She peeked over the side of the bridge, and in the two seconds she took her eyes off her purse, a pickpocket grabbed her wallet. I avoid purses with magnetic closures in general, but they are especially risky in a crowded sightseeing spot. My best advice for travelers is not to look like a tourist. Travel light, look confident in your surroundings, and always listen to that little Mad-Eye voice in your head that counsels constant vigilance!